(This was written by my niece, Bernadette Wilson Conley, who just got her Master's in Sociology and has a Bachelor's in Early Childhood Development.)
Mitt Romney received a chilly reception during a recent campaign visit to a West Philadelphia neighborhood charter school. More than one teacher in the audience called into question Romney’s position that smaller class sizes aren’t necessary for better schools. Progressive media outlets were quick to criticize him, and to point out how Romney’s own children attended private schools which promoted their smaller class sizes. Politico.com reported:
Romney explained that a study of high-performing schools in other nations found that their class sizes were no smaller than those in an average U.S. classroom. “So it’s not the classroom size that is driving the success of those school systems”
The most likely original source for the information Romney used to shape his view on classroom sizes is OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), which sponsors the annual PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey. OECD provides and compares significant amounts of data about how different countries experience economic, environmental, and social change. Their PISA survey evaluates 15-year-olds on language, math, and science reasoning, and the results are frequently published to demonstrate our country’s low “ranking” in these areas. OECD provides the basis for the common conservative claim that lack of money isn’t the problem with our education system, since charts comparing per student spending show the United States spends more than other nations.
Mitt Romney chose to use international data to shape his perspective on how we can improve our own American educational system. Further exploration of the publically available comparative data on twenty-four (24) nations from both OECD and the United Nations may help reveal what truly is “driving the success” of other nation’s school systems.
One of Romney’s favorite areas of focus to improve educational outcomes is promoting two-parent homes. However, the international statistics don’t support this view. According to the United Nations, the top performing school systems report a variety of “percentages of young people living in single-parent family structures,” with some rates significantly above, and others just below, the international average. Four out of the five countries with the lowest percentages of single-parent homes (Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece) were also the only countries to score lower than the United States on the PISA. They also had higher than average child poverty rates (though significantly below the United States’ rate).
The other two areas Romney mentioned in his speech are “better teachers” and “better administrators.” What makes for a “better” teacher isn’t as easy to quantify here, but international comparisons can reveal what is different about teaching conditions in successful nations. The first noticeable difference in the OECD charts is in how teacher compensation compares to the average income of peers with a similar education. Although teachers almost always earned less than average college educated workers (except in Spain), the most academically successful nations demonstrated compensation rates that were much closer to equality. The United States fell at the low end of the comparative compensation chart. Admittedly, complaints about low teacher paychecks aren’t all that new.
What is not as well-known is how different international expectations are about how many hours a teacher needs to spend in the classroom to earn that paycheck. While teachers in the most academically successful nations spend 600-800 hours in the classroom (and the OECD average is just under 700 hours per year), teachers in the United States spend closer to 1100 hours. This was the second highest reported number of classroom hours (after Chile). When teachers are not in the classroom, they are able to work on lesson plans, consult with others about best practices, and work with students who are trailing behind. This allows them to be “better” in the classroom. A “better” administrator would help make this planning and improvement time possible, but this goal seems unlikely with current education budgets and top-down mandates.
Based on looking at OECD charts, the United States appears to spend 10-20% more per student at the primary and secondary level than most of the academically high performing nations. Further exploration of both OECD and United Nations data shows that the difference is more than made up for in national spending “per child”. The United States has the largest child poverty rate out of the 24 nations evaluated by the United Nations. As their Innocenti Report Card explains:
Higher government spending on family and social benefits is associated with lower child poverty rates. No OECD country devoting 10% or more of GDP to social transfers has a child poverty rate higher than 10%. No country devoting less than 5% of GDP to social transfers has a child poverty rate of less than 15%.The United States had a child poverty rate of 21.7%, which was significantly higher than every other country being evaluated (the United Kingdom came in second with 16.2%). Only two countries with child poverty percentages above 15% scored above the PISA average. The other three trailed behind the United States.
Child household poverty influences both academic performance and “per student” costs in several ways. According to the United Nations, the United States reported more low birth weight babies than all but one of the academically successful nations (Japan) - a measure associated with more cognitive and physical development delays. US students were the second most likely to report their health as “fair” or “poor” (United Kingdom), and the second least likely to eat breakfast every day (Greece). Fifteen year old children in the United States were the third least likely to have at least ten books in their home.
Students in the United States are competing internationally against students who are healthier, have more educational resources at home, and are less stressed by poverty. If the United States truly wants to replicate the results of the most academically successful nations, policy makers would need to be willing to provide the same resources to families with children through government benefits and social transfers equaling at least 10% GDP. Teachers would need to be offered compensation that is more in line with other college educated peers, plus paid time during the day to prepare for class and be at their best.
The US clearly doesn’t have the political will to duplicate any of the actions demonstrated by academically successful nations. So instead, education advocates will have to settle for making demands like having smaller class sizes, which as OECD points out “may benefit specific groups of students, such as those from disadvantaged backgrounds” and “allow[s] for greater flexibility for innovation in the classroom, improved teacher morale and job satisfaction”.